My father never imagined back in 1990 just what a gift he would be bequeathing Republican congressional candidates in 2006.
You see, it is at least arguable that my father’s actions made the difference in electing then-Louisiana state Sen. William Jefferson to Congress in 1990 in a close race against future New Orleans mayor Marc Morial. My father adjudged, almost certainly correctly, that Jefferson would vote in a more centrist fashion than Morial would, especially on defense, trade, and small business issues, and also knew that Jefferson was prone neither to race-baiting nor to other noxious forms of demagoguery.
Indeed, Jefferson’s voting record has been far more of the “responsible left” variety than of the radical fringes. More on that in a moment.
But what Dad did not know back then was that Jefferson’s long-rumored (but never proved) penchant for corruption would finally blow up in his face just when national Democrats were trying to make a campaign issue of congressional Republicans’ supposed “culture of corruption.” With the reports of $90,000 in literally cold cash discovered in Jefferson’s freezer, though, that Democratic attack had to be put on ice. This week’s news that a federal judge ruled the search of Jefferson’s office to be perfectly legal puts the issue back in the spotlight again, and promises to do so several more times as various appeals are argued and decided. Each time it does, the words “Democrat” and “bribery” or “corruption” will be repeatedly in the same sentences in the news.
That’s rather long-lasting political handiwork for a guy, my father, whose five-year term as Republican National Committeeman ended way back in 1993.
THE STORY IS A GOOD ONE, containing as it does so many elements of what makes Louisiana politics unique — and uniquely fascinating for political junkies from less exotic locales in these United States. In some ways, it parallels the recent New Orleans mayoral elections in which Republicans and other right-leaning white voters, reading smoke signals from the White House, quite arguably provided the margin of difference (whether wisely or not) for incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin over Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.
As in the mayoral race, the multi-candidate election for the open, New Orleans-based congressional seat in 1990 came down to a runoff between two of the more liberal candidates in the field. In Louisiana’s unique, “jungle primary” system, it wasn’t unusual for both of the two general-election candidates to be Democrats. In such circumstances, the best Republicans can do is to figure out how to make the best of what looks like an awful situation.
Morial, son of former Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial, at the time was a sharp-tongued, highly ideological and even angry-sounding liberal. (Later, in his own two terms as mayor, the younger Morial showed some competence and at least had the good sense to hire a top-notch police chief who succeeded in cutting violent crime for a while until the police force fell back into bad old habits under the successor chosen by Nagin. Now president of the Urban League, Marc Morial is less a rabble-rouser than he had seemed, and one-on-one exhibits real personal warmth — but that’s another story.) Jefferson, once a darling of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, had long since made himself a powerful roadblock, on multiple fronts, against reformers in state government. Dutch Morial reportedly was the one who nicknamed Jefferson “Dollar Bill” for Jefferson’s penchant for seeking personal profit, and Jefferson’s personal finances several times came under various forms of contention or suspicion.
But Jefferson never showed a harshly left ideological edge, and he always had shown an appreciation for the concept of private capital formation. Also to his credit, Jefferson had successfully pushed for a more reliable, less political budgeting system in state government.
MY FATHER, HAYWOOD H. HILLYER III, had never been much of a kingmaker. He spent 25 years helping build the Louisiana Republican Party from its days of being almost non-existent (less than 10,000 registered members statewide) to a significant political force — in the process making it less Country Clubbish, more Reaganite. But his role was neither in fund-raising or deal-making, but in the largely unheralded work of organizing the volunteer precinct captains who organize the volunteer workers who walk the streets dropping off campaign literature at every house.
It was out of character, then, for Dad to jump into the fray between two liberal Democrats. But Dad was worried about national defense, and about supporting the first President Bush’s lip-promise for “no new taxes,” and he figured that crucial national issues might be decided by small margins. So he called on Jefferson, pretty much out of the blue, and asked point-blank if Jefferson could be counted on to support Bush on defense issues and on marginal tax rates. Jefferson said yes.
What resulted was a letter to all of the district’s Republicans, signed by Republican former Gov. Dave Treen, by several leading local GOP elected officials, by state Republican Chairman Billy Nungesser — and by my father, who recruited the others to come on board:
We have interviewed Senator Jefferson at length, and agree with several of his stands on issues important to our country….
He is for: Maintaining a strong defense….He is for: The Balanced Budget Amendment, and the line-item veto. He does not believe in heaping our debt upon our children’s children. He is against: Raising marginal income tax rates….He is for: Reducing capital gains tax rates….Senator Jefferson says capital gains taxes must be reduced to permit more job creation….
These positions make a real difference….We hope you will join with us in voting for Bill Jefferson on Nov. 6.
In the end, Jefferson won the election with 52 percent of the vote. He earned fairly strong majorities — difference-making majorities — among white voters and Republicans. Nobody can prove, of course, that my father’s letter made the difference, but Treen’s name especially carried substantial weight among GOP voters puzzled by what seemed like an unappealing pair of choices.
The good news is that my father was right. For 15 years, Jefferson has lived up to these promises, consistently ranking above the average Democrat in ratings from various right-leaning interest groups. He consistently scores above 50 percent from the Chamber of Commerce. He often scores above 40 percent in ratings from the American Shareholders Association. His consistent rating of 20 percent from the Americans for Tax Reform isn’t good, but most Democrats are worse than that. And for conservatives who believe in free trade, Jefferson has been splendid: He provided absolutely essential support for both NAFTA and CAFTA when both hung very much in the balance, and the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies he scored 82 percent in 2003-04 and a terrific 88 percent in 1999-2000.
While this decade he has voted against President Bush’s proposals to cut the capital gains tax rate, he has on record a host of votes in favor of cutting taxes on investments, especially (but not exclusively) for minority and other “disadvantaged” communities. He is one of the two lead House authors of a bill introduced last year to defer taxation of automatically reinvested capital gains until the shares are actually sold — an important issue for the millions of Americans who have mutual-fund retirement accounts, who otherwise must pay taxes each year on capital gains that occur only on paper.
On other issues of interest to conservatives, Jefferson has voted for drilling in ANWR, consistently for strategic missile defense, in favor of allowing military recruitment on college campuses, for a slew of tax cuts for small businesses, in favor of authorizing military force in Iraq, for tax breaks for independent oil producers back in the 1990s, and for a federal Marriage Amendment. The pro-abortion NARAL group gives him only a 30 percent rating, in part because of his opposition to partial birth abortion.
Finally, Rep. Jefferson not only favors permanent repeal of the “death tax,” but speaks eloquently on the subject. To wit, from the Congressional Record of April 13, 2005 (as discovered by my friend and fellow columnist Deroy Murdock):
What was meant to bring short-term budgetary relief has become a permanent burden on America’s farmers, small business owners and families…. There are many reasons to question the value of taxing the accumulated savings of productive, entrepreneurial citizens….Many families must watch their loved one’s legacy being snatched away by the federal government at an agonizing time. This is tragically wrong and nullifies the hard work of those who have passed on. In the minority community there are numerous examples of the injurious effects of the estate tax….Permanent repeal of the estate tax will provide American families with fairness in our tax system and remove the perverse incentive that makes it cheaper for an individual to sell the business prior to death and pay the individual capital gains rate than pass it on to his heirs. But for minorities, it provides much more. It will allow wealth created in one generation to be passed on to the next, thereby establishing sustainable minority communities through better jobs and education, better healthcare, and safer communities.
If it is proved that Rep. Jefferson wasn’t content to provide for his family through honest capital formation, but resorted to bribery and graft instead, then he should suffer the full legal consequences. But for him for 15 years to have been better — more moderate in votes and in tone — than most Democrats, and especially than most member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is evidence that my father’s choice in 1990 was a wise one indeed. For that choice to pay a sort of backhanded political dividend now, in terms of making my father’s Republican Party a bit less vulnerable — that’s icing on the cake, or maybe ice cream in the cooler.